Preparatory to the workshop Janet Mullany and I’ll be giving at RWA National next week on Writing the Hot Historical, the chore (or the labor of love) I’ve set myself is to review my thought on erotic writing and decide what of it will be most helpful to writers of hot historical romance.
Plus, I’ve committed (online! so I have to do it! by tomorrow!) to putting my thoughts in order in response to Ag Tigress’s recent interesting guest post at Teach Me Tonight about distinguishing between erotica and pornography.
Luckily, this stuff really, really interests me, and has for more than a decade — which was probably when I wrote the following little essay, which I find surprisingly helpful even today.
Written in long pre-internet-style paragraphs, printed in a neat little zine called Black Sheets, probably forgotten by everyone but me — I think it encapsulates some of my most honest thoughts about the serious and also funny business of writing for the one-handed reader.
And so, forthwith, I give you:
IN BED WITH GROUCHO AND HARPO: THOUGHTS ABOUT IRONY, HUMOR, AND S/M PORNOGRAPHY
by Molly Weatherfield
When, a few years ago, I suddenly began to try to write S/M fiction, it was like being released from a burden I’d carried around all my life. This burden was not, however, my guilt for having an extensive S/M fantasy life. Of course I have felt, and do feel, guilty about my fantasies.
But guilt, interestingly, has been comparatively easy to learn to live with. I started learning at age twelve, lying alone in the dark with my hand between my legs. I loved the way my fantasies made me feel, but I knew where I’d gotten parts of them — the parts that put naked, quivering, cowering me in the midst of all those cruel, contemptuous gazes and extravagant, lip-curling contempt. Nobody ever died or even felt any pain in any of my fantasies, but it was clear to me that I’d lifted my favorite details from Nazi horror stories. I could even (still can) remember some of the original source material, from a tasty publication for grade-schoolers they distributed in my Sunday school, called something like My Jewish Weekly Reader. The relationship between true, terrible history and strange, exciting bedtime fantasy bothered me a lot, but never enough to make me drop the fantasies. And, as it turned out, all this early self-scrutiny contained a hidden bonus. Decades later, I discovered that there was nothing in any screed by Andrea Dworkin that my twelve-year-old self hadn’t already thought deeply (and quite a bit more honestly) about.
So guilt hasn’t been my problem. But what I’ve had to face up to, instead, has been a kind of intellectual shame. While the guilty child got cannier about the boundaries between representation and reality, the lifelong English major developed some irksome literary snobberies. S/M, I’d think, my god it’s so dumb. So silly, stagy, and redundant. The same story, over and over and over again, and we’re not talking Anna Karenina here. Lame plots that insert character A into plot slot B with what should have been numbing regularity, but wasn’t numbing to me at all. The same ritual humiliations and confrontations, costumes and decor. It’s quaint, really, the crudity of the vision: as though the people who really run things would actually need to wear tall shiny boots. I’d always hoped I’d find fantasies more worthy of my intelligence, but by the middle of my fifth decade I doubted that I ever would. Because the crude stuff worked, after all, which was what counted, even if I found it pretty embarrassing.
Well, if you can’t think your way through a problem, sometimes you just have to lead with your obsessions. Maybe, I speculated, the intellectual shame wasn’t just my S/M problem, maybe it was everybody’s. Maybe it was endemic to the fantasy rather than just my own snobby take on it, and (maybe I’d been looking at it backwards) it wasn’t the problem at all, it was the solution. After all, S/M, at least from the bottom’s point of view, is the fantasy of being stripped of all your defenses — and what stronger defense had I ever developed against, well, everything, than an ironic sensibility? And you have to be willing at least to put your sense of irony down for a nap to imagine yourself in some S/M situations (not to speak of costumes). It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I think there’s a way that S/M humiliates and delights through its sheer, ritual predictability.
I’m conflating the intellectual and the physical here — as I think one must when talking about good sex, good art, and good porn. In all these realms, intellectual and physical become metaphors for one another, in a complicated clinch where meanings swallow each other’s tails. S/M fantasies and decent S/M pornography, it seems to me, give narrative form to a particular modality of the sexual encounter. It’s what’s essential to that moment when both you and the other know how utterly enthralled you are — to desire, to sensation, to the other. Or, as Sallie Tisdale says in Talk Dirty to Me,
There is one specific element to many fantasies that might be called a kind of dominance but isn’t dominance as we usually define it. I mean the dream of being dominated by sex itself–being forced, as it were, by the intensity of the sex to submit to and accept sex, be bound by sex, mastered by sex. (1)
It’s complicated, this business of pretending you had to be forced to get where you wanted to go. I think I started to write porn because I wanted to understand it better, by seeing it from both sides. I wanted to put myself in the most powerless role possible and simultaneously to call the shots. The sensation and the knowledge of being dominated by sex are ephemeral, descending like grace and then evanescing. But written down, articulated by voice and character, plot and situation, they can be captured, specified. They become nameable and palpable and answerable to one’s bidding.
S/M is full of props and costumes, scenarios and rituals and casts of thousands. The S/M fantasist becomes an art director, a collector of objects and fetishes, images of the outre and the out of scale. It’s humorous, finally, how busy your mind can be when you imagine yourself entirely without volition or mobility. By and large, the bottoms who narrate S/M fiction are chatty story — tellers and good observers, especially when they describe situations where nobody said very much. There’s a vein of unrecognized humor running though much of the narrative apparatus of S/M porn, I think. This built-in absurdity seems to have eluded anti-porn literalists, or, more likely, offended them. But it delights me. What a deal. Massage those ironic defenses a little, and things get not just hot but funny. Peek out across the borders of intellectual sophistication — it’s a foreign country, and they do things differently there.
The pornotopic world is shaped by one simple rule: Everybody wants it. And does it. All the time. In a superb essay called “Pornography and its Discontents,” Richard Goldstein says,
Owning up to arousal by pornography posits a world in which sexual impulse is at the heart of all action, in which the actions that spring from desire are inevitable, in which there is no escape from role except through another role; a world without consequences. This is the realm of infancy, to which we may not, must not return. Except symbolically.(2)
I like to think of the pornotopic universe as a kind of Republic of Freedonia, the place the Marx Brothers ran, and ran amok in, in Duck Soup. Utterly anarchic, it just barely manages to contain its absurdities, obsessions, and infantilisms. It’s certainly not where I’d want to live all the time, or a polity I’d want to participate in. But I do want, as Goldstein says, to be able to return to it on symbolic terms. I want ways into it that admit both its power and its impossibility. Humor, it seems to me, is one of the most accessible and compassionate points of entry.
Humor, narrative, outrageous juxtaposition — all technologies of the symbolic — are critical and profound technologies of sexuality. They’re ways of reconciling symbolically what cannot be entirely reconciled politically. Simultaneities of power and powerlessness, layered scrims of adulthood and childhood, subject and object, authority and ravished, helpless enthrallment to the pleasure of the text.
“Pornography” is the word that represents this frightening and challenging side of sex for most people. And I think that’s accurate. You can do sex, after all, with your eyes closed. You can pretend you didn’t know what came over you. But you can’t read with your eyes closed. Pornography catches you looking and makes you admit that you wanted to look. And somebody, moreover, had to think about what you wanted, in a premeditated way that resembles the formal methodology of art or law or computer programming more closely than seems quite decent. Pornography (and to me S/M pornography in particular), is a way to do sex and think about it too. Sex (like everything that’s human) as culture as well as nature.
I think, finally, that it’s the culture part that really bothers both the feminist and the Republican wings of the anti-porn army. Thinking of sex as pure nature allows the Republicans to reject it as primitive, animal, easily dominated. It allows the anti-porn feminists, on the other hand, to kick sex upstairs; nature is spiritual, after all — just another instance of female moral superiority. Neither group, it seems, wants sex that’s quirky, surprising, problematical. And there’s a lesson there for my snobby intellectual side, too — S/M isn’t as dumb as I thought.
(1) Sallie Tisdale, Talk Dirty to Me (New York, 1994), p. 221
(2) collected in David Steinberg, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self (New York, 1992), p. 87
And do come back tomorrow for my regular Friday post, and a discussion of Ag Tigress’s work on some of the same issues, at Teach me Tonight.